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The classic rivalry resumes

Sox, Yankees begin battle tonight for trip to World Series

NEW YORK -- In American sports, it has evolved into the ultimate irresistible matchup, this century-old battle between American League baseball teams from Boston and New York. Borrowing the best elements and emotions from Achilles-Hector, Kennedy-Nixon, Russell-Chamberlain, Leno-Letterman, and Red States-Blue States, the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry has shot past all traditional sports boundaries.

And so one year after they jousted to the (Sox's) finish in the Bronx last October -- in an epic seventh game that appeared to take the clash to its zenith -- they go at it again tonight on the same hallowed soil that has haunted the Red Sox and their desperate fans for so many years.

After a winter of cutthroat backroom moves by both front offices, 162 regular-season games (including 19 vs. each other, which inspired two bench-clearing incidents), and first-round victories in their respective Division Series, the Sox and Yankees tonight play the first game in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series for the right to represent the AL in the World Series.

"This is the most prepared group I've seen," said first baseman Kevin Millar, spokesman for a band of Red Sox frat brothers who call themselves "idiots." "There's a swagger to this club. We're probably the toughest team in the league over the last six weeks. It's crazy. Last year, we walked off the field after Game 7. It was gut-wrenching. But that makes you stronger and tougher, and here we are."

The Red Sox have not been in a Fall Classic since 1986 and have not won it all since 1918, but they again have convinced their fans that this is the year. Wiseguys in Vegas have established the Sons of Tito Francona as favorites, and citizens of Red Sox Nation say that this time it is the Yankees who will fail in the fall.

In the Bronx, New York fans will come equipped with posters of Babe Ruth, chants of "1918," and bootleg "Who's Your Daddy?" T-shirts, a taunt inspired by a quote from frustrated Sox ace Pedro Martinez, who last month said, "What can I say? I just tip my hat and call the Yankees my daddy."

And woe is any brave Bostonian tonight who wades into the House That Ruth Built wearing Sox garb. Only fools rush in.

Parity? Since the start of the 2003 season, the Sox and Yankees have met 45 times (including postseason play) with Boston holding a lead of 23-22. In New England, the magnitude of Sox-Yankees has managed to distract the region from one of the great local sports stories of all time: a pro football team that has won two of the last three Super Bowls and Sunday won an NFL-record 19th consecutive game over two seasons.

It'll be new stopper Curt Schilling getting the ball for Boston tonight. When he was traded to the Red Sox last winter, the 37-year-old Schilling thrilled Red Sox fans by concluding his introductory remarks with, "I guess I hate the Yankees now." He further ingratiated himself to the Boston community by winning 21 games, but he did not make any starts at Yankee Stadium. The last time he pitched in the Bronx was in the 2001 World Series when he helped the Arizona Diamondbacks defeat the Yankees in seven games.

In an oft-aired truck commercial, Schilling says he's coming to Boston to "break an 86-year-old curse." At yesterday's workout in the Bronx, he wore a T-shirt that read, "Why Not Us?"

Now he gets the ball.

"I don't know that I've ever pitched in a game that will have the atmosphere that this game will have," said the big blond righty. "I think Yankees-Red Sox is a step above everything else. This is what I envisioned when we agreed to come here last year, was to be here for games like this.

"As much as the people in the stands in both cities dislike each other, they're exactly alike. There's just so much history here. You can make a name for youself in one game, one inning, one pitch. I want to do something that hasn't been done in almost a century."

Francona said, "We thought the bigger the stage, the better a pitcher he would be."

Schilling experienced discomfort in his right ankle during his start against the Angels in the Division Series. He is expected to receive a shot of Marcaine before tonight's start.

Mike Mussina, who will be on the mound for the Yankees, said, "This is what everyone was hoping for. It's big. Every time we played them this season, it was a playoff game and I think this is the way it should be. It's a rematch of last year, with the best two teams in the American League."

Finally, there is Alex Rodriguez, the 2003 AL MVP who was coveted by both teams last winter. The Sox made a deal to bring A-Rod to Boston and were willing to part with Manny Ramirez to get it done. After the deal was killed by the Major League Baseball Players Association, the Yankees swooped in and acquired Rodriguez from the Texas Rangers.

Rodriguez was the answer to the Sox' acquisition of Schilling. Tonight the two veteran stars face one another, wearing the uniforms of the ancient rivals in an October game. They have an MVP award (A-Rod) and a World Series ring (Schilling), but nothing in their stellar careers has prepared them for this.

Just ask Dominic DiMaggio, Bucky Dent, Mike Torrez, Aaron Boone, Tim Wakefield, and the rest. Red Sox-Yankees in October is unlike anything else in sports.

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